Heat pumps and hydrogen: A sting in the tail

Installer’s Stu Duff takes a look at the recent PR storm surrounding the hydrogen vs heat pump debate:

If you’re unfamiliar with the fable of the scorpion and the frog, it goes something like this (as told by Forbes): “A scorpion asks a frog to carry him over a river. The frog is afraid of being stung, but the scorpion argues that if it did so, both would sink and the scorpion would drown. The frog then agrees, but midway across the river the scorpion does indeed sting the frog, dooming them both. When asked why, the scorpion points out that this is its nature.”

A curious thing happened on July 20. The Guardian ran a piece by Fiona Harvey entitled Gas boiler lobby trying to delay UK’s heat pump plans, leak shows. The leak in question appears to relate to the discovery that the EUA has been attempting to scupper moves to drive the industry to install more heat pumps.

It’s worth emphasising, before I get mired in the whys and wherefores, that this piece is categorically not about the rights and wrongs of heat pumps as the technology of choice for the future of our domestic heating. Nor is it about the feasibility of hydrogen as an alternative. I have a view. That view is not relevant. The issue I would like to address is why we’re largely incapable of having a discussion without resorting to sensationalism and narrative-feeding.

Back to the leak. Fiona Harvey refers to “a draft document obtained by the DeSmog investigative journalism group and seen by the Guardian.” On the DeSmog website itself sits a piece by Phoebe Cooke (who is also bylined on the article on The Guardian): Revealed: Media Blitz Against Heat Pumps Funded by Gas Lobby Group.

And herein lies the problem as I see it. What precisely has been revealed here?

According to the DeSmog article: “An energy trade association that represents and promotes gas boilers and manufacturers is behind a barrage of negative press attacking heat pumps, DeSmog has learned.

“Over the past two years, the Energy and Utilities Association (EUA) has paid a public affairs firm to generate hundreds of articles and interviews to lobby the UK government on energy policy.”

And in The Guardian: “Lobbyists for the gas boiler industry are trying to delay the introduction of new government measures to speed up the take-up of heat pumps, a leaked document shows.”

Irrespective of how you feel about the messaging, this is patently not a revelation. It wouldn’t take an investigative journalist very long to unearth this story, for instance; or this one; or this one; or this one (paywall notwithstanding). The standpoint is hiding in plain sight, or rather it isn’t hiding at all. Hardly Watergate, is it?

Buried several hundred words into Fiona Harvey’s article is this paragraph: “Mike Foster, the chief executive of EUA, confirmed to the Guardian that EUA was seeking a delay to the introduction of the clean heat market mechanism to 2026. He told the Guardian that 2026 was a “sensible timeframe” because the government’s current proposals would hit gas boiler companies with fines for failing to install enough heat pumps, without putting in place the mechanisms necessary to allow them to sell more.”

No hint of smoke and mirrors there, just a statement of intent.

I’m a firm believer that the media has a duty to report, and to report accurately, without fear or favour. The use of evocative language is a standard press strategy designed to elicit a desired response from an audience, and for me, it just doesn’t sit right.

The DeSmog article doesn’t indulge in this tactic – although its depiction of “Negative stories about electric heat pumps… in which damning headlines dub the technology “Soviet-style” is wildly misleading as that particular phrase relates to the mooted Clean Heat Market Mechanism rather than the tech itself. The Guardian, on the other hand, includes the following:

  • “a leaked document”
  • “seen by the Guardian”
  • “evidence amassed”
  • “boasted”

If this language isn’t designed to create the impression of secrecy, underhandedness and an uncaring smugness, why use it? Is it because the actual story – that there’s publicly-voiced opposition to something – simply isn’t weighty enough to generate the desired reaction?

And what of the scorpion? Is it the EUA and its chief exec, Mike Foster, attempting to scuttle the heat pump armada? Or is it rather a succession of governments that have failed to deliver an effective policy for the decarbonisation of domestic heating and thereby created the cauldron of opinion in which polarisation is allowed to thrive?

Wherever you stand on the real issue – an issue that’s far more important to all our futures than how an argument is presented – the fact is that much of the wider public relies on the media’s presentation to form its views. In that respect, we owe it to everybody to be beyond reproach.